Chiesa di Santa Maria della Carmine & The Brancacci Chapel ★★

Detail of "The Tribute Money" (1425) by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine & The Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
Detail of 'The Tribute Money' (1425) by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel

The amazing Masaccio frescoes of the Cappella Brancacci

Try to ignore the rough non-facade and the uninspired baroque architecture of the interior (though the trompe-l'oeil ceiling is nice enough, as is the Chapel of Sant'Andrea Corsini on the left transept, designed by Pier Francesco Silvani, its ceiling frescoed by Luca Giordano).

You're here to see the 15th century Brancacci Chapel covered in frescoes by Masolino, Filippino Lippi, and most famously Masaccio, the Giotto of his generation.

Luckily for generations of art fans—including a young art student named Michelangelo, who once came with his sculpture class to study what were to him the great Old Masters—the 1771 fire that destroyed most of the original 13th century church attached to a former Carmelite convent did spare the back right corner of the church... which just so happened to contain the Brancacci Chapel.

The Brancacci Chapel

In 1425, Brancacci commissioned the chapel to be slathered in frescoes by Masolino ("Little Tom"), who took on the job along with his far-more talented young assistant Masaccio ("Ugly Tom").

They worked on the frescoes together on and off until 1428, when Masolino decamped for Rome and Masaccio took over.

The theme was "The Life of St. Peter" (bookended by some Adam and Eve scenes), and it is quite clear there is more than one artist at work here.

Masolino's sweet, lithe figures dance across the scenes delicately. They're pretty, and well-crafted, and not much else.

Masaccio's brooding, solid characters stride boldly along in landscapes rendered with perfect perspective, fully fleshed out and expertly executed, Masaccio employed a early form of chiaroscuro (the interplay of intense light and shadow) to heighten the sense of realism and depth and ingenious storytelling techniques to ties the scenes together and the panels to one another.

Masolino and Masaccio tackle Adam and Eve

How to get into the chapel

The Brancacci Chapel has been walled off from the church itself and is now entered from a doorway to the right of the church entrance, which leads through the cloisters to a side door. This has nothing to do with the old fire; this was done in the 1990s so they could charge admission.

Just look at the two Adam and Eve works.

Masolino's doomed couple in the Temptation of Adam and Eve are posed against the wall, eyes open but vacant. Eve nonchalantly leans against the Tree of Knowledge with one arm draped around it (much like the female-headed serpent wound around the trunk), about to offer her bland husband a piece of fruit. He scratches his chest.

Masaccio's Adam and Eve, being expelled from the Garden of Eden, wail in their anguish. Eve's face turns blindly toward the heavens, her hands failing to cover her nakedness, her mouth a cruel open slash crying to an unforgiving God. Burly-chested (but oddly short-armed) Adam simply buries his face in his hands and weeps uncontrollably.

Excellent restorations in the late 1980s removed prudish overpaintings of vines done centuries ago that covered Adam's quite, er, prominent penis which seems almost to lead the way out of Paradise.

The vines may have satisfied later ideals of modesty, but they also deadened the power of the piece. Their cruel nakedness makes the cursed first couple appear much more vulnerable, their punishment much more severe.

There's no time to go into the details on all the frescoes, so here is just a list of those by Masaccio:

  • The powerhouse St. Peter and the Tribute Money pictured below (left wall, upper register, middle)
  • St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow (left wall, lower register, back corner)
  • St Peter Baptizing the Neophytes (right wall, upper register, back corner)
  • St. Peter Distributing Alms and the Death of Ananias (right wall, lower register, back corner)
  • Parts of The Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned as the First Bishop of Antioch().

Yes, Masaccio only did most of this last fresco. It (and the remaining murals) was finished off 50 years later by yet another artist...

Filippino Lippi's contribution

Actually, there were three artists who worked the fresco cycle. The frescoes were left incomplete when Masaccio followed Masolino to Rome in the middle of 1428.

Filippino Lippi—son of painter Filippo Lippi (who was once a monk in this very convent) and protégé of his father's own star pupil, Botticelli—was hired 50 years later to complete the cycle to Masaccio's designs.

He did some of the figures in the St. Peter Enthroned on the left wall, the St. Peter in Prison Visited by St. Paul to the left of it on the entrance arch, and, along the the bottom of right wall, the long Crucifixion of St. Peter and Liberation of St. Peter from Prison next to it.

Lippi was hired because (a) the moneybags behind the commission, Felice di Michele Brancacci, was exiled from Florence in 1432 for taking sides against the powerful Medici clan, and (b) neither Masolino nor Masaccio had ever returned to finish the job.

Masolino remained a sought-after artist and ended up moving from job to job and town to town, drifting from Rome to Todi to Castiglione Olona, where he died in 1447 at the age of 64. (He was quite the traveler; part of the reason Masaccio did so much of the Brancacci commission is that Masolino spent two years in Hungary during the middle of the job.)

Masaccio—perhaps the greatest talent of his age, the man whose works inspired Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and legions of lesser artists down through the ages—died of a fever in Rome within months of leaving Florence.

He was 26 years old.

 
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  • , Santa Maria della Carmine & The Brancacci Chapel, Italy (Photo by Nemo bis)
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  • The Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine & The Brancacci Chapel, Italy (Photo by Fotoarchiv Scala)
  • The left wall of the Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine & The Brancacci Chapel, Italy (Photo by Ann Silver)
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  • The nave ceiling, frescoed by Giuseppe Romei (the central
  • The nave ceiling, frescoed by Giuseppe Romei (the central
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How long does Chiesa di Santa Maria della Carmine & La Cappella Brancacci take?

I'd actually leave 30 minutes just for the Brancacci Chapel, another 15 minutes to walk around and into the church itself. Plus, it's a bit removed from the rest of Florence, in the southwest corner of the Oltrarno, so add another 15–20 minutes of travel time. 

The ticket office closes 45 minutes before the site.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).